On Call of Duty’s specific kind of action spectacle.
In my eyes, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is this year’s undeniable holy grail of action filmmaking. Tom Cruise’s daredevil heroics as Ethan Hunt make for thrilling setpieces, and the film’s strongest allure lies in its uncanny knack for portraying his and other characters’ career professionalism as popcorn spectacle. Supporting characters like Angela Bassett’s icy CIA director Erica Sloane or Henry Cavill’s mustachioed muscleman August Walker recurrently echo the sentiment, “That’s the job,” simultaneously justifying acts of violent action and coolly shrugging off feats of superhuman stuntwork.
For such characters, joking about globetrotting with international assassins and private paramilitaries is the equivalent of water cooler banter at the office. Sloane remarks midway through the film, “You use a scalpel; I prefer a hammer,” distinguishing the work of fictional agency IMF as careful and precise, while the CIA operates through shocking power. Its characters always teeter on this line between exacting professionalism and brute chaos, rendering lengthy setpieces all the more potent.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout understands that this swinging pendulum between professionalism and chaos is what makes for suspenseful, memorable sequences, and so too does the Call of Duty series. One online reaction I saw about the film was that it was basically the best Call of Duty campaign they ever watched. The private military companies, the breathtaking car chases, the shootouts that spill into city streets—it’s all very Call of Duty, especially the Modern Warfare trilogy, which is less concerned with warfare than it is about modern action film spectacle.
And like Mission: Impossible, I think Call of Duty offers a specific kind of action spectacle, that of witnessing career professionals efficiently carrying out their jobs, in which saving the world at the last second is rendered as rote work. By making explosive superheroics mundane, the games ultimately lionize its characters and deeds. The game, especially the thunderous Modern Warfare 2—all climax and final countdowns, with little respite—understands that to make its action appear effortless, it must render these feats as another day on the clock, whether that be breaking into a Siberian gulag fortress or racing across the rooftops of Rio de Janeiro.
Like the game before it, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 follows an ensemble cast with an economical storyline that flips back and forth across time zones, suggesting a sprawling sense of scale and urgency. The game quickly propels us through tightly linear, desperate setpieces and eschews older games’ focus on measured, meticulous conflict through battlefield spaces that would slow the action down. Instead, Modern Warfare 2’s playable characters are professionals who conduct violence swiftly and brutally with frosty precision before the pendulum sways the other way and plans succumb to disarray.
For example, the game presents its story of a Russian invasion of the United States through the eyes of Private James Ramirez desperately marching towards hell, where tanks exit the I-95 freeway and paratroopers descend down to a neighborhood warzone. As Ramirez and his company fight through suburban mansions and defend a Burger Town fast food joint that doubles as a crucial military outpost, we also know that protagonists Captain John Price and Soap MacTavish are fighting a secret war against the ultranationalist Vladimir Makarov halfway around the world. These parallel stories—a desperate battlefield conflict with Ramirez and clandestine secret operations with Price—form the dramatic pleasure of Modern Warfare 2’s unsparing blockbuster plotting. Each perspective builds on the other: no matter how dire the frontlines may look through Ramirez’s eyes, we’re always reassured by the professionalism of Price and MacTavish doggedly pursuing the antagonist responsible for the whole conflict altogether.
Actions that you carry out as Price and MacTavish have tangible consequences thousands of miles away, greatly shifting the tides of battle. The first three levels at the top of Act III—Contingency, Second Sun, and Whiskey Hotel—demonstrate this push-pull between professionalism and chaos, creating exciting spectacle. Price and MacTavish infiltrate the frozen Rybachiy naval base in Russia, resulting in Price launching and detonating a ballistic missile in Earth’s upper atmosphere. When we switch perspectives to Ramirez in a frenzied, smoldering Washington, D.C., his squadron is fighting a futile last stand against a swarm of enemies. Price’s actions in Russia ultimately spare their lives; the missile detonation causes an EMP that incapacitates all electronics, temporarily giving the overwhelmed American forces a chance to catch their breath.
What follows is pure sensory experience, where momentary chaos serves as part of a grander plan. The EMP sends helicopters and aircraft raining down from the sky, causing you to hastily sprint and avoid burning wreckage as blood-red flares and flashes of lightning illuminate the way, throwing harsh shadows against building façades that make enemies seem larger than life. The soldiers on the ground will never know that the actions of Price are what caused this disorder; for him, it’s simply his job.
Likewise, the last-minute efforts of regular soldiers in Washington, D.C., spare the capital from a scorched-earth bombing run. It’s these tighter moments of scripted action—racing to the roof of the White House to signal the air force, dodging the fiery husks of enemy aircraft—that linger in the mind longer than featureless, open battlefield conflict. Modern Warfare 2 presents such moments as the work of seasoned professionals maintaining a semblance of control over events that nevertheless spiral into wild, thrilling chaos.
This playful pendulum between precise professionalism and overwhelming chaos is the deceptively simple formula of the Modern Warfare series. When one sequence devolves into pandemonium, the baton is tossed to another part of the ensemble to swoop in for the last-minute, exhilarating rescue. Even within missions, the game typically bifurcates its structure between a careful, methodical infiltration and a messy exfiltration (often in the form of a vehicle chase)—think of Act I’s “Cliffhanger” level with the frantic snowmobile climax, or the pair of Rio de Janeiro levels that end in an emergency helicopter evacuation.
This formula is something that later Call of Duty campaigns have steadily lost, especially when games such as Infinite Warfare or WWII focus so narrowly on a single character rather than the rhythmic pacing of a globetrotting ensemble. In Modern Warfare 2, when situations worsen and characters find themselves helpless, players rest assured that another team of experts is getting things done in some other part of the globe.
Characters like Ramirez may be tasked with defending the capital from an invading army and Price may be burdened by the pressure of ending World War III, but for these characters, well… that’s the job.